SHLOMO PESTCOE  שלמה פּסטקאָ

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Please note: This is not a commercial site. I do not sell or appraise musical instruments. Please do not contact me to request that I identify and provide background information on a specific instrument in your possession and/or evaluate its worth. That's a job for an accredited professional appraiser, which I'm not. That said, I'll be glad to answer questions and discuss any subject I present here, so long as that one proviso is respected.  

 

 

The Origins of Lute Family Instruments


Plucked lutes-- the oldest members of the lute family of string instruments-- first appear in the archaeological record more than 6,000 years ago in Ancient Mesopotamia. Yet, the $64,000 question that scholars have pondered for generations is this: Did the lute actually originate there?

Back in July of 1972, a leading scholar by the name of Harvey Turnbull published an article in the prestigious Galpin Society Journal (Number XXV) that seemed to have the answer. He proposed that the plucked lute first emerged among the West Semites of Syria. 

Turnbull's proposition was centered on the oldest known depictions of lute players at the time-- two cylinder seals in the collections of The British Museum from the Akkad region of Mesopotamia (modern-day Iraq), dating back to the time of King Saragon I, circa 2340-2284 before the Common Era (BCE). On the left is a depiction of a lute player from one of those seals, 89096.

The conventional wisdom is that the Akkadians were a Semitic people, descended from nomadic West Semitic tribes which originated in modern-day Syria. Later depictions of lute playing also turn up in the archaeological record of Syria. This being the case, Turnbull felt it made perfect sense that the lute must have been developed by the West Semites of Syria.

However, in the late '90s, The British Museum acquired yet another Mesopotamian cylinder seal showing a plucked lute being played by a female lutenist. This new acquisition, BM WA 1996-10-2-1, had been dated to be from Ancient Sumer's Uruk Period (c.4500-3100 BCE), making it at least 800 years older than seal 89096.

The evidence presented by the Sumerian seal BM WA 1996-10-2-1 not only pushes back the timeline for the emergence of the lute but also now locates the instrument's possible place of origin further east. The Sumerians, a non-Semitic people, first appear in the archaeological record of southern Mesopotamia around 4500 BCE, as the successors to the Ubaidians, the first known Mesopotamian civilization (c. 5200-4500 BCE). They're thought to have originated in the region of the Caspian Sea, perhaps in northern central modern-day Iran or even further north east in Central Asia, and, at some point lost in the mists of time, migrated south to Mesopotamia. It could be that they already had the lute in their original homeland before their migration.

Unlike the Ubaidians, the Sumerians had a system of writing. Thanks to that literary skill, we have the oldest known documentation of music and musical instruments-- MS 2340, a Sumerian clay tablet in The Schǿyen Collection, dating from the 26th century BCE.  It contains some twenty three specific music references. Among those references is the Sumerian word pantur (literally, "small bow"), which is believed to be a term for lute.

 As seal BM WA 1996-10-2-1 is dated back to Ancient Sumer's Uruk Period (4500-3100 BCE), let's take a quick look at the city-state itself. Uruk was the oldest and certainly one of the most important of the Sumerian city-states. It's the setting for what is probably the oldest extant piece of written literature, The Epic of Gilgamesh, which recounts the adventures of Uruk's second recorded ruler, King Gilgamesh.

Archaeological evidence indicates this era was marked by Sumerian civilization's expansion, by means of trade and colonization, into northern Mesopotamia, Syria, and as far north as Anatolia (present-day Turkey). Sumer's rich cultural legacy certainly laid the foundations for the development of the succeeding Near Eastern civilizations.

One of the cultural treasures that the Sumerians bequeath to the great civilizations that came after them is the lute. This is evident in the many depictions of lute playing found in the art and on the artifacts of the Akkadians, Hittites, Babylonians, and Assyrians. Another ancient Mesopotamian clay tablet in The Schǿyen Collection, MS 5105 -- this one from the Old Babylonian Period, circa 2000-1700 BCE-- contains two musical scales transcribed to be played on a 4-string fretted lute, tuned in 5ths: CGDA-- the exact same tuning as the viola, cello, mandola, mandocello, and tenor banjo. This is the oldest piece of musical notation. 


From Mesopotamia to Ancient Egypt, Greece, & Rome

The Mesopotamian pantur eventually made it's way down to Egypt. Lutes first begin to appear in the archaeological record of Pharonic Egypt at the dawn of the New Kingdom with the emergence of the 18th Dynasty (1540-1307 BCE). It is generally believed that they were introduced sometime in the late Second Intermediate Period (1640-1540 BCE) when the Hyksos dominated Egypt.

The conventional wisdom is that the Hyksos were various nomadic Semitic tribes from Ancient Canaan and Syria who began to settle Egypt's eastern Delta region in great numbers in the latter half of the 13th Dynasty (1783-1643 BCE). While there's no indication of the presence of lutes in Canaan, artifacts found in the archeological record of Ancient Syria show depictions of musicians playing lutes similar to those found in Mesopotamia and in central Anatolia (Turkey), the homeland of the Hittites. This being the case, it stands to reason that the Hyksos tribes of Syrian origin were the ones who introduced the lute into Egyptian musical culture.

About a thousand years after the introduction of the lute into Egypt, lutes make their first appearance in Ancient Greece. In the early years of the Classical Period (500-323 BCE), we begin to see depictions of lute playing in Greek art and on the artifacts of daily life.

Despite the fact that there are no specific references to lutes and lute-playing in period literature, Greek language writings and inscriptions from the later Roman period indicate that the Ancient Greek word pandoura was the common term for lute-type string instruments. Clearly, pandoura must have been derived from the Sumerian word pantur. This etymological link also provides a clue to the Greeks' original source for the lute-- the Near East. Other major influences in the creation and evolution of the various different types of Greek pandoura were the lutes of Egypt and Central Asia.

 

The Ancient Romans picked up the pandoura from the Greeks and called it pandura in Latin.

 

 

Central Asia: The Birth Place of the Lute?

Most  are the myriad kinds of plucked lutes of Asia. The roots of most of the plucked lutes found throughout Asia can be traced to two principal sources: China and the Islamic Near/Middle East. However, when you look at the place of origin for China's many different plucked and bowed lutes-- e.g. the sanxian, pipa, ruan, erhu (fiddle), etc.-- it's clearly Central Asia by way of the neighboring nomadic tribes of "horse" peoples like the various Mongol groups and the related Tuva and the Uyghur. The old catch-all term for string instruments in Chinese is huchin, which literally means barbarian (hu) string instruments (chin). (Eventually, huchin became a generic reference for the various types of Chinese fiddles, such as the erhu, banhu, jinghu, etc.)

Take, for instance, the case of the banjo-like Chinese sanxian (as known as the xianzi). The 3-string sanxian comes in a variety of different regional forms, however, they share some basic characteristics: a drum-like wooden body topped with a skin head (typically, python) and a long fretless neck. It's thought to have descended from the hulei, a fretless 2-string lute with a python-skin covered narrow pear-shaped body and shallow bowlback, which was popular in the Tang dynasty (618-907 CE). The hulei, in turn, is most likely the offspring of the Mongolian tobshuur lute, which is akin to the Tuvan toshpulur and the Altai topshur. The tobshuur -- referred to in Chinese as huobusi -- is also a 2-string fretless lute with a skin-covered narrow pear-shaped body and shallow bowlback.

 

 


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* Yummie * Musical Styles * Instruments * Features * News * Contact * Links *

* Banjo Roots: Banjo Beginnings *

* Banjo Roots: West Africa *

* The Ekonting: A Link to the Banjo's West African Heritage *

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Last modified: 02/01/09